ARLINGTON, Texas — An expected result in an unexpected fashion. For No. 11 Michigan opening the season with a grind-it-out, no-frills victory was certainly good enough.
This neutral site opener at AT&T Stadium matched two iconic programs from college football’s Cadillac conferences. The Big Ten – which went 8-1 in Saturday’s non-conference games – earned some bragging rights thanks to the Wolverines’ 33-17 victory over No. 17 Florida.
“It was a good start,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We’re not patting ourselves on the back. We’re moving on with humble hearts and working towards Week 2.”
And there’s a faded, faint asterisk that needs to be applied to the outcome. The Gators were playing without 10 players who are suspended. On that list is their best running back (Jordan Scarlett) and top receiver/play maker (Antonio Calloway).
Their absences were obvious considering that Florida’s offense was inconsistent, impotent and darn-near invisible.
So while there’s the urge to grade Michigan with an incomplete on this season-opening test, the fact that it prevailed against a Southeastern Conference team is significant. The Wolverines returned just four starters from last season’s 10-3 team.
However, it doesn’t appear there’s lack of talent on the roster.
Michigan also displayed SEC speed. The Wolverines’ running backs, linebackers and defensive backs had no trouble getting to the edge or getting deep against Florida. Prime example: Nick Eubanks, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound tight end out-ran two Gators DBs for a 48-yard reception late in the fourth quarter.
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown, who is under the national radar but in coaching circles is renowned for his acumen, lost 10 starters from last season’s unit. Of the starters in last year’s opener, none were on the field Saturday.
“Young don’t mean nothing,” said sophomore linebacker Devin Bush, who had a team-high seven tackles and two sacks. “Football is still football. I know there was a lot of talk we lose a bunch of guys to the league, we lose a star player, so we came out today and played with a chip on our shoulder. This whole season we’ve got something to prove,”
Harbaugh, in his inimitable way, explained this way: “Really not thinking about anybody as freshman or sophomores or juniors or seniors. They’re Michigan Wolverines.”
The defense played like lower-case wolverines against a Florida offense that was, well, ineffective. Both of the Gators’ touchdowns came via pick sixes on consecutive series. Otherwise, Florida could muster just 192 yards in total offense and just 27 yards on 11 rushing attempts.
Florida coach Jim McElwain, starting his third season in Gainesville, said earlier this week that he believed the team’s offensive line was the team’s strength. Based on Saturday, if that’s the case the Gators might not win another game.
“They physically took it to us, beat us every which way they could,” McElwain said. “The quarterbacks didn’t play great but it’s tough to play great when you’re playing off your foot. I thought we had a good plan but as it turned out that got foiled by getting physically whipped by big strong guys.”
Michigan’s defense, especially its front seven, might be championship quality. The offense is a work in progress.
Maize And Blue Nation is not 100 percent behind senior Wilton Speight even though Harbaugh has faith in his quarterback. That faith was tested after Speight’s interceptions gave the Gators a 17-10
lead in the second quarter. Harbaugh went to backup John O’Korn.
“I wanted him to just reset, calm down,” coach Khaki said. “The idea was to just calm down a little bit. Reset. Retool. Regroup.”
At halftime, Speight had a blunt conversation with Harbaugh and passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton.
“Coach Pep and Coach Harbaugh talked to me at halftime and said ‘your next move is crucial and it can go one of two ways,’ so I tried to make sure it went in a positive direction,” Speight said.
Speight 5-for-7 on the opening drive of the second half as the Wolverines went 75 yards in 10 plays to take a 20-17 lead. That started a 23-0 second half for Michigan. Speight finished 11 of 25 for 181 yards and the Wolverines were balanced – 215 yards on the ground and 218 through the air.
Freshman Tarik Black led Michigan with 83 yards and a touchdown on two receptions. He’s another young and talented player that gives Harbaugh and his staff hope for the season.
“[The win] built our confidence,” Black said. “It allows us to see what we’re capable of in tight moments. This game was just a test for us.”